Cooking and Storytelling

Posted by on 14th Feb 2021

Jay Rayner has recently been recommending cookbooks. I like Jay Rayner's columns. Obviously, I’m not alone. Hesitate too long to buy his book recommendations and the price rises from pennies to hundreds of pounds. Indecision meant I missed out on the first two books; I bought his third (and fourth) recommendation immediately. Rayner's third article on Fuscia Dunlop made me think about who has the authority to speak.

Authority is a concern the world over. But where does authority come from?

Rayner spent a lot of his article justifying his choice of a white woman to talk about Chinese food. My original blog post in response reached nearly 4,000 words. If you’re reading this and worried about the length, rest assured most has been deleted.

In the west, historically authority derived from knowledge. Knowledge, in the west, is power. But, do Chinese people have the most knowledge and therefore authority about Chinese cooking? If you look at the Wikipedia entries for Kung Pao Chicken, the Chinese ones cite the Apple Daily. The proprietor of which is now in jail for saying the wrong things ( Being the head of Alibaba or Samsung doesn’t stop you from disappearing or going to jail in Asia. In Asia, you might have knowledge but you still can’t speak.

In Asia, your authority comes from those with power. Truth and authenticity are unimportant. The importance is pleasing those above you. Take, for example, the story about the Emperor with no Clothes. In Asia, the officials are correct for not telling the Emperor he didn’t have clothes on. That was the smart move. The people who told the emperor he was naked—they were fools.

Yet, Dunlop’s book Shark's Fin and Sichuan Peppers made the top ten list of most borrowed books in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan) in 2019. According to this article, Dunlop’s book makes locals feel especially happy and close to her because it includes Sichuan dialect and Sichuanese recipes.

A Chinese newspaper asks Dunlop about her opinions.

南都:你20年前就来过中国,感觉中国在美食和生活上有哪些变化? Southern Weekend: You came to China twenty years ago, what changes have you seen in food and life? 扶霞:中国的餐饮业现在很繁华,在一个城市能吃到全国不同地方的味道,现在中国对自己的饮食文化也很重视,这是一个很好的变化。但也有不好的方面,我发现上一辈人都会做菜,做得很好,但现在的年轻人基本不会做菜了,这真的很可惜。我觉得中国家常菜非常棒,希望人们能够重视它,将其当成一种值得向下一辈传授的东西,年轻人真应该多向父母学习做菜。 Dunlop: The restaurant industry in China is booming. In cities, you can eat flavours from many places. Now, China places importance on its own culinary history, which is a good change. However, a not so good side I discovered is that the last generation can cook, and cook very well, but young people basically don't cook, which is a real shame. I think that Chinese food is amazing, I hope people will value it and see it as something worth passing on to the next generation. Young people really should study cooking with their parents.

Aside from it being a rather hackneyed point about young children not learning from their parents, Dunlop doesn’t mention what happened to the pots and pans of parents and grandparents under Maoism and the Great Leap Forward.

Dunlop does mention in the English version of The Food of Sichuan that even Kung Bao Chicken had its name changed for falling foul of left-wing extremists. She also gives the origin of the dish and its name (after a man called Ding Baozhen who taught an emperor). The whole time I was in China, I never once heard about the man behind Kung Pao Chicken. I asked a Chinese friend yesterday. She didn’t know the story either. Learning something new made us feel happy.

Dunlop has authority in China from pleasing people in power and authority in the west from knowledge.

This week, Rayner recommended Roast Chicken and Other Stories. For someone who researches stories, it was too much to resist. Since I bought it, the price has quadrupled, and it's the number 1 best seller in Meat, Poultry, and Game on Amazon.

Lent starts next week; I’m going to try to give up buying books.